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Film Reviews: Norbit, Hannibal Rising 

Including Norbit, Hannibal Rising,Traffic Signal, and the Ralph Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man

Wednesday, Feb 7 2007
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PUCCINI FOR BEGINNERS One friend short of forming a lesbian repertory staging of Sex and the City, Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) doesn’t lack for a sounding board when she replaces one lover with two: Grace (Gretchen Mol), a straight girl with dreams of becoming a glass blower, and Philip (Justin Kirk), a Columbia professor with a habit of asking his women what they’re ordering at restaurants. A Woody Allen devotee, writer-director Maria Maggenti hawks an insular view of New York City (where, for example, poverty doesn’t exist) to illuminate the grotesque solipsism of her characters. The sensitivity of this artless production is such that every peripheral character, human and animal alike, is available only to flatter the egos of the story’s power dykes, who, given the dimensions of their living quarters, have some nerve accusing each other of being bourgeois. One good labia joke is not enough to disguise the fact that Maggenti, who suffocates her story with mentions of her favorite novels and dated references to every buzzword from Laura Mulvey’s feminist catalog, is simply buying time until Allegra’s two-timing is revealed. In short, a nightmare worse than Trust the Man. (Sunset 5; One Colorado) (Ed Gonzalez)

SAMOAN WEDDING In this slight but sweet-natured comedy from New Zealand (which arrives in theaters four days ahead of its DVD release), four 30-something bachelors, infamous in their close-knit Samoan community for ruining public events with their drunken foolishness, are ordered by a neighborhood minister to show up at an upcoming wedding with committed girlfriends — and a grown-up attitude — or else be barred from entry. Each man obediently sets out to woo a girl, although the task facing the irresponsible Sefa (Shimpal Lelisi) is to rewin the heart of his fed-up, newly pregnant girlfriend. The other three men include Michael (Robbie Magasiva), king of the one-night stand, and the studious Albert (Oscar Kightley), who’s so busy chasing unattainable babes that he doesn’t see that his co-worker is madly in love with him. As plot schemes go, this one, co-written by Kightley and James Griffin, with first-time director Chris Graham at the helm, is so formulaic that any sensible critic would bring out the knives. And yet, the all-Polynesian cast, many of whom developed this material as part of a theater troupe called “The Naked Samoans,” bring so much energy and glee to the telling that one can only smile and hope they all profit wildly from the American remake that’s reportedly in the works. (Music Hall) (Chuck Wilson)

THE SITUATION If only because it’s the first dramatic feature in a sea of documentaries about the war in Iraq, there’s a lot riding on Philip Haas’ brainy, sincere, exasperating movie, shot in Morocco and set mostly in Baghdad and the town of Samarra, permanently on the boil with conflicts between moderates and extremists, insurgents and Iraqi police, and American troops and everyone else. The Situation opens with a fact-based provocation — two Iraqi youths, out after curfew, are thrown off a bridge by American troops — and proceeds to nothing less than an attempt to lend a legitimate voice to just about every party to the conflict. Haas’ instinctive feel for nuance sits jarringly at odds with a self-serving screenplay by Slate correspondent Wendell Steavenson, who injects a semiautobiographical, entirely superfluous love triangle between Anna (Connie Nielsen, looking slightly stoned), an American reporter with a gift for befriending the locals; her sometime boyfriend Dan (a very good Damien Lewis), an intelligence officer full of abstractions about how to end the war; and Zaid (Mido Hamada), a sensitive Iraqi photographer who dreams of seeing snow. Haas, who made the tepid, literate dramas The Music of Chance and Angels & Insects, has no experience with action pictures, and his wobbly use of hand-held cameras only aggravates the confusion. Which may be as it should be — except that this is not a documentary. As ambitious in scope as it is interpretively timid, The Situation delivers the requisite incendiary climax, but collapses in on itself with daft speeches about the elusiveness of truth in something called “the fourth dimension of time.” (ArcLight; One Colorado; Town Center 5) (Ella Taylor)

click to enlarge Dont you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? (Photo by Bruce McBroom)
  • Dont you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? (Photo by Bruce McBroom)

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TRAFFIC SIGNAL A skillfully woven multicharacter drama, Traffic Signal is a methodical depiction of a stratified alternative society cobbled together by the group of Bombay street people who congregate around the towering signal post in the center of a busy four-way intersection. Everyone who subsists there, from the fake beggars to the strutting con artists to the prostitutes (male and female) who take over after dark, seems to have a role to play, and so this microcosmic society looks surprisingly self-sufficient — until, inevitably, its “internal contradictions” are exposed. The director and co-screenwriter, Madhur Bhandarkar, has become one of the leading lights of off-Bollywood “parallel cinema” for his films that anatomize various clearly defined subcultures: taxi-dancer nightclubs in Chandni Bar (2001), gossip rags in Page 3 (2005), corrupt multinationals in Corporate (2006). Although his staging is often flat-footed and graceless, Bhandarkar has impeccably correct politics, and the intricate, switchback construction of his stories can be engrossing. Traffic Signal is his most enjoyable film so far, largely because its uninhibitedly profane characters are more fun to watch than a bunch of buttoned-down bourgeois backstabbers. Bhandarkar also allows himself a few more moments than usual of heart-tugging, crowd-pleasing melodrama. Silsila, the “manager” of this intersection — the guy who collects protection money and arranges lucrative traffic jams — is played by former child actor Kunal Khemu, who at 13 was Aamir Khan’s aspiring tough-guy sidekick in Raja Hindustani (1996). With his flashing eyes and artfully shaggy hair, Silsila is obviously a romanticized movie version of a sidewalk scam artist, plunked down in a cluttered neo-realist environment. But when his eyes meet those of a willowy, wide-eyed peddler named Rani (Neetu Chandra) and his gift of gab suddenly deserts him, you may not care. Pushed a few steps further, this love story in the midst of squalor could have made a fine Puccini opera. (Naz 8) (David Chute)

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Slideshows

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    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
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    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

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